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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Life Lesson 2

A week since my mastectomy and the area around my missing breast is still numb but healing well. I am moving a little more freely although at night, I'm grateful for Panadol and Nurafen.

Two days ago, the temporary prosthesis arrived, courtesy of the Cancer Council, packaged in what now seems to be the compulsory pink packaging.

They look like oversized shoulder pads and I joke on my Facebook about how I might give the spare one to Al, to emphasise his own attributes for my personal enjoyment.

I tease him and ask him if I can take a picture of him with a handlebar moustache drawn on, wearing a a g-string with my prosthesis shoved down his pants. For some strange reason, he's not taken with the idea.

In a box in my bedroom there is also the latex prosthesis sent by my ever-thoughtful friend Chris. However, it weighs a tonne! In fact, it's so heavy I might use it as a door stop. Or maybe a paperweight?

These prosthesis are welcome. I have ventured out three times this week for meetings with friends. The first time, I stuffed a bedsock down my shirt. The proper prosthesis is so much better and actually, surprisingly comfortable.

Still, the use of stuffing to fill a space only emphasises my sense of loss. Just the word 'prosthetic' reminds me that I am, to all intents and purposes, an amputee.

There are still moments when I feel sad. Paris, my remaining breast, has become a tumour. She seems misplaced. Ironically, it is she who seems not to belong. (What was that about One being the loneliest number in the world?... okay I'm joking).

This morning, I research my prosthesis options. I enter a world of "Adhesive Nipples", "Swimforms" (for use in water), "Bra Extenders" and "Symmetry Shapers."

Part of me is a little appalled. I am not a great one for fakery. I do not buy into the beauty myth and am openly critical of our need to kid ourselves that we are younger, sleeker, finer than we are.

I don't lie about my age. I don't judge others by their wrinkles or the cut of their clothes or the cost of their finery.

I have always placed a high value on inner qualities and have believed that in even the most physically repulsive creature, you can find something - SOMETHING - that is unique and beautiful (back hair not withstanding).

I can't bear the idea that women, especially are measured and valued according to their numbers - the kilos on a bathroom scale, the centimetres on a girth, their age, or failing that, their financial value.

In fact, I was somewhat disgusted when my BFF Louisa told me that her daughter, Chelsea had gone down to the Gold Coast Indy. The girls all hung out in their bikinis and as they passed the boys, scores were written on placards and waved about.

Chelsea says she was given a '6'. If only I had been there, I would have asked those guys if that was a measure of their IQ - or the length of their penises.

I just can't stand it: why girls buy into this bullshit at such a young age.

But now I seem to have been transplanted into a world where, relentlessly it seems, I am fixated on my physical shape.

This is a new way of being to me.

When people come to visit, I either hide under my bed covers or put on the housecoat that is a recent gift from my pal, Janet. (Just weeks ago, I was the one who would blithely welcome guests in my pyjamas, comfortable in my own boobs).

Now for the first time in my life, I'm embarrassed by my body. More than that. I am a little repulsed.

Today an old friend, Lorelei, comes to visit. I put on my bra and prosthesis because I can tell you, one dangly DD boob is no salve for anyone's eyeballs.

Lorelei and I once used to spend all our time together. We worked together. We were flatmates together. We went to Uni together. By my reckoning it's been probably eight years since she has been able to come down and visit. Any meetings we've had in the intervening years have been the product of my attempts to create opportunities for social engagement. In more recent years, it all became too hard. There were just too many excuses about the increasing length of our separation.

But now, with illness, old friends are rallying; they are making an effort.

And I realise that illness imposes on friendship, perhaps makes demands. Illness tests relationships. It is a means by which we can tell if that bond we share with people has been snapped or simply stretched.

It's just 32 days since I received my first diagnosis and already I have been privy to a certain grand unveiling, revelations both slow and sudden of human nature.

Nearly all of it has been wonderful, glorious even.

People I haven't heard from in years - yes, years - have emailed, telephoned or texted. Cards, flowers, books, chocolates, the largesse has been endless.

The extent of the compassion and kindness of my friends has often brought tears to my eyes.

Just this week, Janet and Bob drove all the way from Bellbowrie on the other side of town, carting a barbecue fit for a king, gifts, and provisions and filled an otherwise empty Sunday with what has become a rare pleasure: fresh air and company.

Lindar has sent flowers and lots of loving messages. Today she offers to hold my hand through chemo, to come and read to me. "I'll even wear my PJs - if I can find some," she says. Aww.

Sue drops off a jigsaw puzzle because she anticipates the boredom that comes with convalescence.

Maddy and Jan (with her husband Dave in tow) have dropped off meals.

Louisa sits on my bed and watches a movie with me. She walks my dog for me.

Nim and Anne text me frequently with the little messages that lift me up.

And total strangers have been sending meals with tiny extras that they would not otherwise provide. A lady called Raelene cooked me a heart-shaped cake iced in pink to go with the dinner she made; someone else baked a slice to accompany her meal; a lady called Jackie has sent a medallion of Mary our Mother of Good Health, that has been blessed by a priest (the same one she carried every day while she fought her own breast cancer).

My appreciation is not a superficial thing. It mines feelings from the depths of a place I rarely go.

Because I've never had a need for help before.

I am not even sure if I need it now. I am the kind of person who will keep a stiff upper lip and keep going. (I'm the woman who played out a whole season of soccer, despite always being the one chosen last, spending most of the season on the bench, and then refused the opportunity to play in the grand final. I hated every minute of it but I stuck it through - from sheer bloodymindedness.)

And so from this is eked my second Life Lesson.

Asking for or accepting help when it is offered is no act of submission but a call to arms.

That's because the help that people can give me, is part of my arsenal against this cancer. Yes, I could go it alone. But I don't want to and I don't have to.

Besides, it's a win-win situation in my mind.

I'm not the first person who will say that the ability to help is the greatest personal power. There is nothing greater for one's self esteem, or self power or sense of self-worth.

I speak from experience.

Yes, all of these wonderful, kind people are doing things for me. But I hope that I am also doing something for them/

It is Nim who has said over and over: "People want to help! You just have to show them how."

Of course they do. Why would they do it if they didn't want to? Who will blame them if they say: "Fuck her. She can go it alone."

I am just the lucky one who chooses people well. (There's an upside to being wise to inner qualities, you know!).

Let me just say there is no shame or fear in revealing my weaknesses or vulnerabilities. It this means I draw your help and draw from the power of others, then I am truly fortunate.

I will happily accept a hand that is lent or a heart that is opened to ease my way because I know I am facing a dark hour.

I don't want to go this alone. If you reach out your hand, I will take it.

But more than this, I will not refuse your help or what you want to give, because I recognise it for what it is: a gift and no gift should be thrown back.

For all of this, already and so early, I feel blessed because there, in those deepest parts of me, I know that, no matter where this dismal story might end, I will have people on the side lines cheering me on and willing me to succeed as I shunt by bucket of shit up that hill.

I will close my eyes at night, holding Jackie's Our Lady in the palm of my hand, and I will dream about a day when I can repay these kindnesses.

That will be the day my own power is returned. Just you watch me.


  1. I do not choose to engage in your life because of your illness. I choose to engage you as you are an interesting, talented, humorous, strong, like minded peer whom I respect and feel privileged to have crossed paths with again. My eyes can see deeper than your silhouette.........its what lays beneath the paint that tells the story don't you think? Rachybaby

  2. Bronwyn I'm going to have to 'agree to disagree' on your synopsis of your latest instalment; it may be following a slightly different path, but it is a valid path.....I for one found a great deal of truth in your section about people gaining from helping
    Asking for help (not that you did) IS a call to arms....and you have a nuclear arsenal of pink power behind you, (led by the singular and inimitable Nimmie) with your friends, colleagues and family around you, know that at every stage in every skirmish you Pink Power Troops are here to make sure that you win your war and feel loved, cherished and valued at this hard time
    Sending much love and positive energy......thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing once more <3